When was the last time you looked in the mirror without the intention of analyzing your appearance, but instead with the intention of simply and neutrally seeing yourself?
Before the glass mirror was invented in about 1300, people had only gotten a glimpse at what they really looked like by seeing their own reflections in water or in polished metals.
“[In the fifteenth century], the very act of a person seeing himself in a mirror encouraged him to think of himself in a different way. He began to see himself as unique. Previously the parameters of individual identity had been limited to an individual’s interaction with the people around him and the religious insights he had over the course of his life. Thus individuality as we understand it today did not exist: people only understood their identity in relation to groups — their household, their manor, their town or parish — and in relation to God.
What happened in the fifteenth century was not so much that this community identity broke down, but rather that people started to become aware of their unique qualities irrespective of their loyalty to their community. That old sense of collective identity was overlaid with a new sense of personal self-worth.”
Excerpted from Millennium: From Religion to Revolution: How Civilization Has Changed Over a Thousand Years by Ian Mortimer. Copyright © 2016 by Ian Mortimer. Reprinted by arrangement with Pegasus Books.
The original invention of the mirror gave people a new sense of individualism and autonomy.
Have you ever seen a baby’s fascination with their own reflection in the mirror? These babies aren’t checking their hair or seeing if their outfit fits right because they have not been conditioned to do so yet (It’s unfortunate that I have to include “yet” here, as if this conditioning is bound to happen). They are straight up fascinated at the connection between their own self and the image that’s being reflected back onto them. They are recognizing, observing and exploring their physical existence for the first time.
I’d imagine this curious and awe-struck reaction is similar to what the people in the year 1500 felt like seeing themselves for the first time, only they were grown adults.
After the self-awareness with the mirror was discovered, I wonder how long it took before the mirror transitioned into a tool used to analyze and critique one’s own appearance. This is an indirect utilization that had to have developed over time, but now, evaluating your appearance is arguably the main purpose of a mirror.
The reason I started poking around the internet to discover the history of the mirror is because I noticed that the majority of my trips to the mirror were for the sole purpose of investigating my appearance, resulting in both positive and negative experiences.
Making sure things are right where they need to be.
Scanning for red flags that need improvement.
Noticing and reveling in my good hair day.
Auditing the size of my waist.
Loving on my favorite outfit.
Applying products until I reach the standard I created for myself.
Sending glares of displeasure and annoyance without saying any words.
According to their originally intended meaning, mirrors can be a tool for recognizing one’s own unique individuality, unique expressions and physical characteristics. But I don’t see much recognition of my individual self in the list above without it being followed by a positive or negative judgement.
When is the last time you saw yourself in the mirror and did just that — saw yourself? Not even with acceptance or love, I’m simply talking about neutrally witnessing yourself as a human being who is here, now. Notice yourself.
You have an entire life, an entire experience that is yours.
The lack of individual experience people had before the mirror was invented is arguably coming full circle. Today we get caught in a cycle of basing our identity and understanding of ourselves on who our family, friends, followers, classmates, coworkers, clients, neighbors or strangers think we are or expect us to be. Among all of the external relationships and roles, our individuality and autonomy is there for each of us, waiting to be rediscovered.
The next time you pass a mirror, pretend you are in the year 1500 and you have never personally seen what you look like. Your identity and who you know yourself to be is based entirely on experiences outside of yourself — the culture of your community, your religion, your family, others’ descriptions of you.
If even for a split second, imagine it is your very first time seeing yourself. Can you use the mirror as a self-awareness tool to recognize and embrace your individuality?
You have incredible uniqueness, your own identity, your own experience. In this moment there are no changes that need to be made, no conclusions to be drawn, no critiques, no measurements.
Nothing to do. Just see. And just be.
Marvel in your individuality.